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Making Waves — Iowa

December 26, 2023

Climate problems may seem too big to tackle, yet people all around this great nation are taking action. This is a state-by-state review of how some are responding. This week’s column looks at: IOWA and the question is: What steps are Iowans taking at the county level to reduce greenhouse gases and energy costs?

Some folks in northeast Iowa have figured out how to reduce local energy costs and bolster local economies, and their ideas are spreading. The model should sound familiar to everyone, as it is based on the Conservation District structure we all know. These local units were established nationally by legislative act in the mid-1930s, after great swathes of the US experienced extreme topsoil erosion, due to a prolonged drought and its aftermath known as The Dust Bowl. There are now 3,000 Conservation Districts in the US – almost one in every county.

You may find this short no-nonsense program interesting:
Podcast Iowa Business Report (Oct. 2020)
Episode: IBR Extra – Winneshiek Energy District with Andy Johnson [13 minutes]

Iowa Energy Districts take action based on the interest and participation of local residents, businesses, and schools, in conjunction with governmental units, i.e., county commissioners, school boards, municipal councils, and local non-profit groups. Some states like Iowa even have legislation already on the books allowing for the formation of decentralized utilities serving at the county level. We’ve seen that many states are adopting more locally-based energy sources – whether it takes the form of community renewable energy installations, or decentralized power generation, or individual property owners with rooftop solar or wind turbines. These can lessen the impact of widespread power outages and interruptions, and lower costs over time.

Similar to many states across the US, the current climate situation in Iowa has meant alternating extremes of drought and flooding events, plus an unusual type of storm cell that in recent times has become less extraordinary: the Derecho (check it out – the images are very dramatic). In farming communities, these conditions bring an extra measure of challenge and raise food security questions. Most of Iowa (85%) is farmland, with an average farm size of 345 acres. Farm operations have always been susceptible to weather and climate fluctuations, but as if weather problems weren’t enough, farmers are experiencing more pronounced problems with weeds, bugs, invasives, and crop diseases.

No surprise that the Energy District concept arose from a farm community. Twelve years ago, a non-profit in Winneshiek County in northeast Iowa decided to do something about it. Their primary mission was offering technical support in the form of audits to reduce energy costs through better efficiency. As a trusted local source of information and education, their work expanded in the energy sector. Now nine Iowa counties have established their own local Energy Districts and are reaping the benefits of keeping energy dollars locally, saving participants money, and building resilience. In 2010, it was just Winneshiek County; now the concept has spread to neighboring Wisconsin and even far away Vermont. If you would be interested in seeing this take hold in Forest County, perhaps a call to the Conservation District or the Commissioners’ Office would be a place to start.

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, or have a comment about my column, or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned. Happy listening!
[email protected]

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest Press 08-17-2022. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year.


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